Language Politics

One of the most powerful things that I’ve read in all of Butler’s assigned fiction, is the passage in Mind of My Mind where Doro asks Anyanwu if she understands the term ‘mute,’ and she replies:

“I know what it means, Doro. I knew the first time I heard Mary use it. It means n—–s!”

I know I’ve quoted this in at least one of my other blog posts, but I keep coming back to it. In light of racial tension seeming at an all time high, the events in Ferguson and Baltimore are drawing more attention and momentum across the country. While the larger issue of institutionalized racism in American law enforcement is finally being noticed, the smaller scale issue of the politics around language being used to discuss what is happening is almost entirely under the radar. An article on the Feminist Wire, Thugs-R-Us, discusses “the epithet ‘Thugs’” and how it is “a word that has an egregiously racial/black association.” The word ‘thug’, as the article says, “[conjures] up…scenes of ghetto chaos, criminality and macho swagger,” and therefore instantly brings up a negative connotation in our minds.

Our brains make automatic connections when we hear terms like ‘thug,’ to the images we have been subconsciously trained to associate that word with – images in this instance like those of, as the article more or less says, dangerous black teens. In addresses to the media, both Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake and President Obama have called the Baltimore rioters “thugs.” The former has since attempted to clarify her use of the word, but President Obama has made no attempt to. Following these incidents, on a CNN broadcast, a Baltimore City Councilman, Carl Stokes said:

“Of course it’s not the right word, to call our children ‘thugs.’ These are children who have been set aside, marginalized, who have not been engaged by us. No, we don’t have to call them thugs. … Just call them n—–s. Just call them n—–s. No, we don’t have to call them by names such as that.” (source)

Councilman Stokes’ point forces us to look at the politics behind the language we’re using; just because a term does not have the historical weight (such as that of the n-word) doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as harmful in its uses. The repeated use of ‘thug’ to describe black youth – kids and teens who are justified in their anger over mistreatment and circumstances – is just another way to rid them of their agency by making them seem like “ghetto criminals.” It’s very possible that a lot more people would be sympathetic toward those in Baltimore if the media (and people in positions of power such as the President and the Mayor of Baltimore) didn’t continue to insist on reducing them to this harmful stereotype.

Butler – and by extension Anyanwu – understood the power and politics behind language choice, and Butler’s choice of writing it into her novel showed an understanding of racial language politics that is still relevant today: language evolves, and we need to understand that slurs evolve with it.

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